Changing Sunlight and Shadow: Designing for the Desert

The changing light and shadow of the desert skies that marks the landscape of the Southwest has long been a place of inspiration for American artists and designers. Two of our favorite architectural precedents from this region are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, which provided specific material and texture references for Ray Phoenix, and Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, which inspired the Ray Phoenix color palette, full of earthy, desert sky hues of gold, blush and terracotta, burnt umber and turmeric mixed with sage and mossy greens. If perhaps not perfectly achieved in practice, Arcosanti also embodies our philosophy at Ray: that a sense of community and belonging is made possible by an intimate shared experience of art, architecture, and design.

Ray Phoenix is our third project, closely following Ray Philly (2023) and Ray Harlem (2024). At 26-stories, the building is set to change the Phoenix skyline, not only through height but through color as well.

Ray Phoenix is located at 777 N. Central Avenue in Downtown Phoenix, Arizona

At Ray, ensuring our projects are contextual is one of our core values. From the following interview, you’ll come to see how the Ray Phoenix design teams harmonized historical and local references with forward-looking, intentional design solutions. 

“In Phoenix, the desert climate of extreme sun and dry landscape inspired our design,” says Sharon Johnston, Partner, Johnston Marklee & Associates. “The greens of the building vary in hue and intensity and reflect the ephemerality of plant life in this arid climate. The gridded façade weaves together a mix of textures from reflective tinted glass to matte powder coated metal and colored concrete, while changing sunlight and shadow animate variations in structural depth and material.”

We sat down with Sharon Johnston, founding partner of Johnston Marklee (JML) and interior designers Danu Hassik and Jeremy Levitt of Parts and Labor Design (PLD) to better understand their design approach and how it colored the final concept for Ray Phoenix. 

Watch the sunrise over the Camelback Mountains from Ray Phoenix

RAY: Let’s start with the basics: How would you describe your design philosophy to someone who is not familiar with your work?

Sharon Johnston (JML): We believe in the old adage that the simplest form is not always the best, but the best is always simple. We look for direct, singular solutions, and we prefer that our projects slowly reveal themselves to those that give their time and attention.

Danu Hassik and Jeremy Levitt (PLD): We live in the intersection between craft and function, we’re always looking to imbue every project we do with an authentic approach to materiality and aesthetics while hero-ing process and performance. The human experience is deeply rooted into our work and practice.

RAY: Sharon, when a new project comes across your desk, where do you start the design process?

JML: We like to start each project with a certain amount of naivety, without predetermined ideas. We observe the details of the place, its history and climate, and work closely with our clients to distill an approach that is responsive and specific. We work on various tracks from planning, formal studies, and structural concepts at the outset, and look for moments of synergy that drive the design forward.

RAY: And Jeremy and Danu, what does your decision making process look like as a team?

PLD: Our studio is really collaborative, the culture is expressive and open. We’re really fortunate to have such an amazing team of talented designers. Our decision making process as a team is very iterative. Our process is really organic and intuitive, we are extremely communicative. Dialogue is a huge part of our process, the spoken word has been the foundation for most of what we create. But we find sketching a really expressive process and is essential to how we design.

Danu Hassik and Jeremy Levitt of Parts and Labor Design

RAY: What’s one thing that feels unique about the design process for Ray Phoenix?

JML: Ray Phoenix is our first, large residential project. With Ray’s focus on cultivating community around arts and culture, the process has focused on a human scale and attention to detail. The way the building meets the street—with shade awnings, generous street tree plantings, and expansive storefront glazing—affords a lightness and transparency where you might expect heaviness and the base of a tall building. In addition, the programming of the gallery and event space, adjacent to the entry off the sidewalk, and the garden patios on the fifth-floor amenity level create unexpectedly intimate and comfortable spaces that impart a sense of home within the building.

PLD: Working with the RAY team. It’s been a fantastic ride. It’s really refreshing to work with a team that has a high level of design knowledge and understanding. Suzanne Demisch brings such a unique perspective that we really appreciate and Dasha Faires is unprecedented in her ability to guide processes and teams.

Behind-the-Scenes: The Johnston Marklee team reviews reflective tinted glass samples

RAY: What’s your favorite design detail from Ray Phoenix?

JML: With so many buildings and designs today that overindulge in visual display and complex expression, we are thrilled that Ray Phoenix will be a building with qualities that will slowly reveal themselves in time. With an apparent monochromatic palette, subtle differences in material from colored cast-in-place concrete, powder-coated metal, to reflective spandrel glass will appear from different positions throughout the building and over the course of the day—the ‘no detail’ effect.

PLD: The textures throughout are really expressive of the Ray sensibility and vision. There’s also a level of scale which is really interesting. The standout design moment for us would have to be the sunken lounge, it feels so uniquely RAY and we are thrilled to be working with a client who was open to the idea!

The Sunken Living Room at Ray Phoenix

RAY: PLD, how do you balance creativity and functionality in your designs?

PLD: Our experience in fabrication allows us to achieve a level of creativity while maintaining functionality, it allows us not to compromise on design for function or vice versa. Durability is really important to us and our clients so we’ve built our design practices around achieving long lasting product that are communicated / realized through unique designs.

RAY: JML, how do you approach integrating sustainability and environmental considerations into your projects?

JML: We always start with the most passive approaches possible: building orientation to optimize daylighting and views, while minimizing heat gain; porches; courtyards; indoor-outdoor spaces that offer shading, serve as climatic buffer zones, and inspire stronger connections to nature; and integration of local materials and craftspeople whenever we can.

JML’s Vault House, Oxnard, CA, 2013. Photo: Eric Staudenmaier

RAY: What’s next?

JML: We are always looking forward while reflecting back at history. We belong to a secular sector, perennial outsiders who are on a slow burn, very good, very serious, not on the fast track, but pursuing our own architectural interest with tenacity, quirkiness, and confidence, producing quietly subversive work. We remain perpetually open to what comes next.

PLD: We’ve just launched a new company together, Known Work. Which is a product line focused on direct to consumer / direct to designer, allowing us to democratize our work a little more. We’re excited to show more of ourselves through both Known Work and PLD. Our first collection ‘Perceptions’ is focused around functional harmony within the home and enhances the joy of communal experiences at home through the presence and use of beautiful functional objects.


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